Sunday 18 December 2011

Treasure Hunters' Lobbyists Rebuffed


The Florida-based treasure hunting firm Odyssey Marine Explorations are not doing too well in their struggle to appropriate the loot (17 tons of gold and silver Spanish coins, $500 million worth) which they so secretively raised from an early nineteenth century Atlantic shipwreck (believed to be the single richest bounty yet recovered from the sea). They needed just a small tweak in the House version of the defense bill - "just two words and two commas" - to make it easier to get their hands on the loot.
The little-noticed proposal became the focus of a quintessential Washington lobbying battle waged almost entirely behind closed doors, with the potential fate of hundreds of millions of dollars in booty hanging in the balance. The change in language, pushed by the company's lobbyists and a group of Florida lawmakers, alarmed the Spanish government and the Obama administration, which said it feared the impact it might have on the treatment of other sunken warships, which are viewed as both archaeological sites and hallowed graves. In the end, the arguments backed by the two governments prevailed, with the proposed shipwreck language stricken from a final conference bill approved by House and Senate negotiators last week.
Good, the behaved scandalously over the ship they tried back in 2007 to convince us all was somewhere else and had a different name from the "Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes" (they called it the "Black Swan"). It is still not clear how British authorities in Gibraltar allowed them to land the loot and then export it to the USA. The truth however came out, and the company, instead of selling the loot off to eagerly-awaiting collectors and paying off their profit-greedy investors, has been battling for custody of the treasure in U.S. federal courts. These have repeatedly sided with Spain, Peru and 25 descendants of those aboard the Mercedes, deciding the frigate is protected under sovereign immunity laws (much of the legal stuff is covered by Kimberley Alderman on her blog).
The most recent setback for Odyssey came this month, when the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals declined to revisit a previous ruling.[...] As the court fight dragged on, however, Odyssey and its Washington lobbying firm, Jenkins Hill Consulting, embarked on an alternate path to help Odyssey's case: a wording change to a 2004 law called the Sunken Military Craft Act. At issue is a section of the law defining "sunken military craft".
The case seems to have been dealt with by Scott Barnhart of Jenkins Hill, who has helped Republican politicians in their campaigns and lobbied for tobacco companies. Odyssey wanted to persuade some US Congressmen to take their side and get the wording changed in their favour, thus rendering wreck sites like that of the "Mercedes" open for private salvage. The move failed, prompting from their lobbyist the same type of remark we are used to hearing from those who try to profit from the sale of other material derived from the dismantling of archaeological sites: "This administration continues to make it difficult for U.S. businesses to operate and succeed". ("Succeed" in what Mr Barnhart?)

The dispute over the Mercedes is part of a broader, global debate over control of undersea treasure, which has become far easier to locate and retrieve with the help of robots and other advanced technology.
Is the US willing to take the global moral lead in helping protect this valuable resource from destructive commercial exploitation? Or will the lobbyists get their way with easily-swayed US Congressmen?

Source: Dan Eggan, 'Treasure hunters battle for $500 million bounty', Washington Post, Dec. 15, 2011

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